If yesterday’s post got you wondering what it looks like to teach with a conceptual lensyou are going to love today’s topic.  We are excited to have Dr. Lois Lanning as our guest blogger today.  Dr. Lanning is a guru of concepts-based teaching and learning and the author of Designing a Concept-Based Curriculum for English Language Arts.   

Putting the Conceptual Lens into Action

By Lois Lanning


photocredit: timmcmorris.com

Yesterday’s  post from Dr. Lynn Erickson introduced one critical component of a concept-based curriculum, the conceptual lens.  Today, let’s look closer at how a conceptual lens can transform a traditional lesson and ignite students’ synergistic thinking.  To do this I am going to bring you into a middle school English language arts classroom.  The concept-based curriculum behind this unit is titled, How Can We Change the World and the unit’s conceptual lens is “Critical Stance.” Let’s listen in…

Good morning, class!  Today, we launch a new curriculum unit. Before we get started, let me give you some questions to think about:
Have you ever had to take a stance on something you believed in or felt strongly about?
Have you experienced an injustice and wanted to take action? 

You have the ability to bring about changes in your world. In this unit, we will explore author’s craft, point of view, and an author’s critical stance. As a social activist, you will express and defend your own viewpoint on a controversial issue. After researching your topic [issue] throughout the unit, you will write a letter expressing your point of view and offering your suggestions for solving the problem.**  This new unit is titled How Can We Change the World?  I think you are going to enjoy the learning!

Did you find yourself recalling examples from your background experiences in response to the teacher’s opening questions?  If so, your synergistic thinking was awakened!  In other words, a synergy was triggered between your factual and conceptual knowledge as your mind began to more deeply process the relationship between your personal examples and the concepts presented (stance and injustice) in the questions.
Now that the teacher has piqued everyone’s interest and thinking, let’s listen in once more and see how she uses the unit’s conceptual lens to create a tighter focus…

I’ve posted the word “Critical Stance” on this chart paper.  This is the lens that will focus our work throughout this unit.  With your elbow partner, I want you to brainstorm what you think are important ideas in critical stance.  Think about past learning and see what you come up with….
Wow!  Look at our chart! 
Informed yet open minded, critical questions, verifiable answers, author’s style, validity of claims, etc.
We will keep this chart as a working resource for the next several weeks.  Now, as I read aloud this short newspaper editorial about the homeless in our city, I am going to use the lens of critical stance to help me process aloud the author’s intent…[as she is reading, the teacher models questions being raised in her mind, what she is inferring as a reader, and other information she needs to research before she could formulate her own opinion about the issue.] I can see I have some work to do in response to this editorial. 
Now, what I would like you to do is get into your small groups and think about social issues you care about.  I have a collection of books on the back table for you to consider.  Come to consensus on the text that addresses a social issue that is important to all of you. Tomorrow your group will begin to dig into the text you selected and we will continue to return to critical stance as our lessons unfold…

There are many elements of this lesson that engage the interest of students – one is the conceptual lens.  The lens helps students think about the relationship between the information they are studying at the factual level and the conceptual level.  The conceptual lens is the broad organizing concept under consideration in this unit of study, but subsequent lessons will examine many more specific concepts drawn from the ideas in texts and from the English language arts processes, strategies and skills included in the unit.  Instruction creates interplay between the lens, other concepts in the unit, and the expected knowledge and skills to ultimately move students’ thinking toward the unit’s conceptual understandings (generalizations).  When all the components of concept-based curriculum and instruction work together, students readily see the relevance of their learning and are better able to independently transfer their understanding across situations.  How great is that!
**Excerpt taken from: Lanning, Lois. (2013) Designing a Concept-Based Curriculum for English Language Arts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press